I saw Patty Jenkin's "Monster" before I watched Nick Broomfield's 2003 documentary "Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial" killer and if you pcik up this DVD set that is the order I would advise you follow (you can track down Broomfield's 1992 work "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer" later if you so desire). Both of these works were produced after Wuornos was executed in Florida in 2002 for killing seven men who picked her up as a prostitute during the 1980s (one of who was trying to save her).
Having both available is because "Monster" could easily be overwhelmed by two external factors. The first is the true story of Aileen Carol Wuornos, who was actually named "America's first female serial killer" by the "Guinness Book of World Records." It is hard not to walk into this movie and not know that this woman is going to kill again and again. The second is that it is equally impossible to watch this film and not know about Charlize Theron's transformation into Aileen Wuornos. The story of her weight gain and the make up job that made it difficult to remember this is a beautiful woman are now a Hollywood legend, especially now that the performance has been eternally validated by Theron's Oscar for Best Actress. The performance is indeed superb, a case of completely inhabiting a part. What stands out is not what Theron did to her body but what she does with it: the looks and mannerisms that create this compelling character.
What surprised me the most about Jenkins's film is that it struck me as being a love story more than a horror story. Throughout the film we get bits and pieces of Aileen's life story, enough to know that she has been the victim of abuse and that years of being a prostitute have driven her down to the point of contemplating suicide. That is when Aileen meets Selby (Christina Ricci), a young lesbian trying to take her first steps out of the closet. Aileen has only suffered at the hands of men, so Selby's youth and innocence is very attractive. Aileen wants to stop hooking, but to get money so that she and Selby can get a hotel room and party for a week is different because she can convince herself that this time she is doing it for somebody else. But if Aileen finally has a good person in her life fate gives him another punch in the face, literally, when she goes off in the car of another john.
In the context of this film the first man that Aileen Wuornos killed deserved it. Whether this is what really happened with the first john Wuornos murdered is debatable (after the trial it turned out he had served ten years for a violent rape in another state), this becomes a pivotal event in Jenkins's film. However Aileen does not start killing more johns at that point. What she tries to do is find a "real" job. Of course, she does not have the education or the temperament to do anything other than what she has been doing. The tragedy told by the film is of a woman who wanted to make a better life, but her old life was such that in her warped mind this was the only thing that she can do. Even as she is killing men who do not deserve to be killed, there is a sense that her history and fate have conspired against her. It is too much to feel real sympathy for Aileen, but in the tradition of horror films, Jenkins has made her "Monster" a truly pitiable figure.
Even without seeing "The Selling of Serial Killer" it is clear that the 1992 documentary was about how Wournos' flaky lawyer, the born again Christian who "adopted" her, and the cops who worked her case were all trying to make money off her story. At the start of "Aileen" we learn that a whole bunch of cops resigned, which would seem to vindicate Bloomfield's position. The original documentary matters because in many ways this one is about Broomfield having to deal with Aileen's confessions to the murders as he stubbornly holds on to the idea that at least the first killing really was in self-defense. That is what he wants to talk about at the end while, in a profoundly ironic twist, Wuornos wants to expand on the thesis of his first documentary and talk about how the cops knew she was killing man after the first one but let her keep doing it so they could get more money for selling the story rights.
Bloomfield cinematographer/co-director Joan Churchill go back to the beginning of Wuornos' story, taking us to the house and woods in which she lived in Michigan before hitch hiking to Florida and what she through would be a happier life. There is no doubt about her guilt, or her insanity for that matter, but it is also clear that her life was pretty much a complete tragedy from the start . All of her victims were essentially random choices and you know that in their grief their families wanted to know "Why?" But this documentary just shows that trying to answer that question, inadequately, is not going to provide much peace.
Broomfield is clearly against the death penalty although that is only a tangent in the documentary that emerges mainly when he films the final interview with Wuornos the night before her execution and she is clearly mentally ill. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that mental illness is not an impediment to the death penalty, but Wuornos' ranting and raving at the end certainly gives you pause. There are no easy answers here, but everybody should have known that going into this documentary. But I do know that after watching "Monster" and then seeing the real Wuornos, you will be even more impressed by the performance of Charlize Theron.